Copyright during the Covid-19 crisis

By Shawn Hall April 28, 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries and educational institutions are using online resources more than ever to serve their communities, students, and patrons. A major concern in the current crisis is providing access to print materials held in institutions’ physical collections. Because many of these works are copyrighted, academic institutions and libraries have evoked the principle of fair use to provide patrons with needed copyright materials.

Educational institutions should always strive to follow copyright and never abuse fair use principles. Fair use allows institutions to share copyrighted materials for a wide variety of educational purposes. (To learn more about fair use and copyright laws visit here. To learn what specific copyright protections that are provided to educational institutions click here.) Institutions should plan and clearly define their own copyright practices to protect themselves from potential copyright claims and to show their institution’s good faith and ability to serve the community while making responsible decisions.

Here are some suggestions from industry professionals to take advantage of fair use during a crisis legally and ethically:

  • While the rules of copyright and public access during the pandemic on the surface may seem like anything goes, educational institutions should plan and clearly define their own copyright practices
    • Decide on a deadline for providing select online resources. While this deadline can be pushed back depending on the ever-developing situation of the pandemic, having a deadline shows that your institution does not tend to abuse publishers and copyright owners’ willingness to provide resources during the pandemic. Clearly display this policy and deadline date openly and if possible when making a copyrighted resource available online under fair use.
    • Be consistent with your use of fair use and sharing copyrighted materials.
    • Always keep a record of your decisions as an organization in case there is a future copyright query or dispute.
  • Be risk-averse by setting limits on who can view your institution’s uploaded copyrighted materials and how and when they can view it
    • Make copyright available only while students or patrons need it (i.e. for a month, until the end of the semester); the shorter the window of time the higher the chance you are covered by fair use.
    • Limit who can view copyrighted materials by requiring patrons or students to sign in to view these materials.
    • Avoid sharing copyrighted materials (i.e. books, films, online videos etc.) on recordable online videos feeds.
    • If copyright owners allow institutions or individuals to use their copyrighted materials on online video hosting sites, set video to “Private” or “Unlisted”.
  • Reach out to copyright owners prior to sharing their copyrighted materials either by asking for permission directly or reading their copyright policies
    • Some copyright owners have given special exceptions to sharing their copyrighted materials during the current crisis.
    • Many publishers have updated their copyright rules and policies within the last month to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. For a list of popular publishers’ updated policies visit here.
  • Keep careful records of all decision your institution makes regarding copyright and what actions you carry out
    • Refer to these records to prove you are inline with exercising fair use.
    • Keep the board of directors, management, and staff in the loop when these decisions are made to make sure everyone is on the same page and will consistently follow these guidelines.
    • Records we take now will be used to make future laws regarding copyright and fair use for educational institutions.
  • Don’t allow the fear of infringing copyright laws stop you from serving the community and doing your increasingly important job
    • Take advantage of public domain works.
    • Do not feel overwhelmed of the possibility of violating copyright laws. As long as you follow the rules set forth by copyright owners and document your own policy of using fair use, you should be legally covered.
    • Don’t feel pressured to share anything copyrighted materials that may not be legal or ethical to share.
    • The cost of not doing something is very high; this is a time we need to connect with our communities and use copyright content to serve our local communities.

Information for this article was taken from two webinars held by the American Libraries (for Part 1 click here and Part 2 click here). Additional resources listed in the webinars can be found here and here.